Thursday, May 26, 2016

How I Look at End-of-the-Year Tests

In our state, homeschoolers are required to give their students an end-of-the-year test. (Not all states have this requirement. You can look up your state laws here.) In our state, you can administer the test to your kids yourself, or you can have someone else give your kids the test, such as a fellow homeschool parent or a testing service.

I know some homeschool parents who absolutely resent this demand because they don't believe the tests accurately reflect their children's knowledge and skills.

Others stress out, allowing that niggling self-doubt that so many of us have to explode into all out worry that maybe we aren't really competent to teach our own children. That they won't equal their peers, thereby confirming the opinion of some that their decision to homeschool was a foolish one.

Others find it a minor annoyance because it takes up precious time, interrupting their homeschooling schedule and flow.

I used to be like this: Stressed about the test because I felt like it was a reflection of me as a teacher. I worried that I wasn't teaching them all of the concepts that other kids were learning and I was sure that I deviated too much from the basic curriculum because we like to explore all sorts of subjects. But a funny thing happened that changed my perspective. When test time rolled around, my kids always did well. So all that worrying and working myself into a stressed out mess was for absolutely nothing.

Now, whenever test time rolls around for me, I'm actually intrigued. I don't mind administering the tests, and I even make it a point to order the comprehensive tests that cover not only ELA and math, but also science, social studies, language mechanics, vocabulary, and math computation. I purchase the CAT 6 from Seton Testing, an online service. You have the option of doing the very basic test - the Complete Battery with just Reading and Math, the slightly more comprehensive - the Complete Battery Plus which also includes Science and Social Studies, and the whole enchilada - the Complete Battery Survey Plus, which also includes Language Mechanics, Mathmatics Computation, and Vocabulary.

You are asked to create an account when you purchase your test. Seton sends you the tests, your child takes them, then you send all of the materials back to them and they grade them. You'll then receive the results in the mail, and they'll also be stored in your online account so you can go back and see how they did, print extra copies, or compare how your child is doing in each subject from year to year.

The reason I like it so much is that it breaks each subject down and tells me at what grade level my kids really are in that particular subject. So for example, last year my son who was finishing up 3rd grade, was reading at a 10.9 grade level, but in math he was at a 4.3 grade level.

Let me be clear: I don't teach to the test.

And I don't care if my kids get answers wrong (as long as they honestly don't know the answer and not just because they are being careless). For me, the test are just another tool to help me see what areas my kids need help with and what concepts I need to be covering or exploring more in depth.

For example, I learned that my son was an ace at word problems, but when it comes to computation, he is really struggling because of his dysgraphia. He refuses to work out the problems on paper, but when he does he gets them right. So I'll be focusing on this over the summer and in the coming school year. If I hadn't given him the Complete Battery Survey Plus, I would not have discovered this because he aced the basic math portion at the beginning, which is mostly set up as word problems and not simple adding or subtracting of number problems. The latter is what Mathematics Computation is all about. Twenty number problems of addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division.

The tests are also fun for my kids. Sounds crazy, right? But I supposed that since I don't give them tests the rest of the year, they think it is fun to sit and be timed to answer questions. Maybe it's also because I sit them at our dining room table for a distraction-free environment (we normally have our main school lessons in our school room).

I also learned to stop checking their answers in front of them because my daughter, who is super competitive, would be such a mess if she got any wrong. Obviously, we're still working on the whole it's-okay-to-make-mistakes-that's-how-scientists-make-great-discoveries concept. So now, I just grade them later, when I'm alone, making notes about which areas I need to concentrate one in future lessons.

The problem with tests in traditional schools is that this doesn't happen. No one figures out which specific concepts kids need help with and no one sends a note to the parents saying "Your child needs help understanding about the American Revolution, division, and grammar." Instead, parents just get a report card that says Math: D or Social Studies/History - Unsatisfactory. So how are parents supposed to know what it is exactly their children are not understanding?

Anyway, the point is that test taking is all about perspective. Once I changed mine and stopped thinking that it was in some way an indicator of how smart they are (I know they're smart), if I'm a good teacher (I know I am), or what other people will think (who cares?), we were ALL so much better off. Now I know that these tests are just another tool at my disposal for helping pinpoint what areas I need to focus on with my kids.


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